Volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that readily evaporate
at room temperature, thus allowing the chemicals to be easily inhaled.
Formaldehyde and artificial fragrances are two such sources that have a
ubiquitous presence in hospitals. A study of occupational exposure to
artificial fragrances found that health care workers had the highest rate of
allergic sensitivity. The fragrances are typically contained in devices
that either aerosolize the chemicals into rooms or evaporate the fragrances
from a solid form, thus producing VOCs. Although the Food and Drug
Administration is responsible for regulating fragrances and other chemicals in
personal care products, the majority of these compounds have not been tested
for potential toxic human health effects. Strong odors, fumes, and
perfumes are also potent triggers of asthma. Formaldehyde, a known
carcinogen, is used in pathology and lab settings and is contained in
bedding, drapes, carpets, acoustic ceiling tiles, and fabricated furniture.
Artificial fragrances are used to address unpleasant odors. Purchasing low- and
no-VOC products, which are readily available (e.g., no-VOC paint), is a key to
addressing this problem. Also ensuring adequate indoor air circulation, which
can decrease the concentration of VOCs in the air, effectively decreases the
“dose” of the chemicals being inhaled.

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As an example, ethylene oxide (EtO) and glutaraldehyde are commonly used
in medical settings for sterilization. Nurses and other medical staff are
exposed while cleaning equipment and work surfaces. Although both of these
chemicals are powerful and effective, they are associated with serious human
health risks. Glutaraldehyde is associated with respiratory irritation
including asthma, skin irritation and dermatitis, and eye irritation and
conjunctivitis. In fact, in a review of health effects of glutaraldehyde
exposure, almost all case reports of occupational asthma were of endoscopy

The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, produces
a report on carcinogens that summarizes the latest scientific evidence on the
cancer-causing properties of many chemicals, including EtO, formaldehyde,
and others that are present in health care. In this report, EtO is also listed
as a known human carcinogen. EtO has been associated with increased incidence
of certain types of cancer in workers with long-term
exposures. Additionally, EtO is an eye and skin irritant and also may
damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.